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Poetry Out Loud State Champion Heads To Nationals, Did Not Expect Victory

Gayle Schorenberg and Ray Jones

Ray Jones is a junior at Natrona County High School. Jones is also this year's Poetry Out Loud State Champion.

Poetry Out Loud is a national arts education program that supports poetry by offering free educational materials and hosting a recitation competition for high schools across the country. It's a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and state arts agencies. In this case, the Wyoming Arts Council.

Wyoming Public Radio's Naina Rao sits down with Jones to talk about winning the competition, what's next for national championships, and what got Jones into poetry.

Ray Jones: I used to do poetry a lot of the time in elementary school. I've always loved reading and stuff, and I used to have these little poetry books and nursery rhyme books. So, it's always been something that caught my attention. I didn't start writing poetry or anything until maybe seventh grade, because we had a writing club, and we'd all go and talk about stuff we wrote and it was super cool.

Naina Rao: So, you've been doing this since you were a child?

RJ: Yeah.

NR: Why do you do it? Why do you do poetry?

RJ: I really like the emotion and stuff behind it, and I've always loved to read. But having these short little things was always so freeing because I could be bored and be like, 'Oh, I only have a few minutes. So, I'm going to read maybe a few poems, instead of a whole book contrary.' Or just in general, I really liked some of the stories. Like, I always read Edgar Allan Poe stuff, and I've always been into like Oscar Wilde, and little things like that.

NR: Are these folks also your source of inspiration?

RJ: Yeah! I really do love taking inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe. He has a lot of personification in his pieces and... Heart, you know?

NR: What do you like to write poetry about?

RJ: I like to write poetry about life and nature. And... I skateboard a lot. So I get to see around town a lot of the time. And it just, like, people inspire me. Just seeing a normal family or something walking past, I'm like, 'Whoa, I want to make a story or something from that.'

NR: Does it run in the family?

RJ: Yeah, I have a lot of really creative family members. My dad is really creative. He does cinematography stuff, and used to write rap, and knows a lot of people who do, so it's super cool. My grandma used to be a reading and writing teacher. And so I always had a really close connection to literature. And then when I was bored, I would be stuck inside a lot of the time so I would just find something to write, or reading from other things. I like to think I have a broad vocabulary because of that.

NR: So, you mentioned that you applied to Poetry Out Loud last year.

RJ: Yes. First time I'd applied to compete, it was something our whole class was doing. When I had entered, [I] was in... pretty sure 10th grade. And then it was right up my alley, 'cause I was like, 'Whoa, heck yeah.' And so, I, of course, jumped on that as soon as I could.

NR: Because you were doing this the second time -- you're competing the second time, were you nervous or…?

RJ: I was a little nervous still because I honestly did not see myself getting nationals this time around. All I wanted was to beat myself last year. I just, so badly wanted to be above, because I realized what I did wrong [the] last time around. And I was like, 'I'm going to fix it this year.' That's all I'm working towards. So, it was more like a 'put it to myself' kind of moment.

NR: Yeah, and then you're going national now! What's going to happen and what's next?

RJ: So, before, we got to go to Cheyenne to perform to see who would win state, and we got to get a tour of the Capitol building and perform on stage. But this year with it being held virtually, I had to record at my school. Normally I'd go to Washington, D.C., and perform, but now I have sent my videos in and I believe I'm just waiting for them to be judged and everything. And so, it was more different because we didn't get to see the other poets and stuff that normally we'd be competing against. All I know is that it's just going to be judged, and out of the 52 people, we'll see who wins! [laughs]

NR: Do you feel like you missed out?

RJ: I feel like I missed out. I love meeting new people, and especially people from different parts of my home. It was really beautiful, especially [for] people that are into the passion that you're into. So, I do definitely think I missed out a bit this year.

NR: Right, yeah. And so, is this what you want to be doing forever, you think?

RJ: I think as a hobby I'll always be in love with literature and poetry, and write it as much as I can. But I don't know if I'd ever do it as a job or something. But I've always wanted - it's like my dream, to go to a poetry slam like at a coffee shop, you know? Or just something, and perform it because it's so much fun.

NR: All right, Ray, good luck.

RJ: Thank you.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Naina Rao comes to Wyoming Public Radio from Jakarta, Indonesia. She has worked at NPR for Story Lab and the nationally syndicated show, "1A". Naina graduated from Michigan State University in 2018 with a B.A. in Journalism. Naina enjoys swimming, listening to podcasts and watching Bollywood movies.
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